This year for movies sees more horror than usual – from Noel Clarke’s “Storage 24” to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. But when it comes to horror games, is it right that a re-release of a ten year old game is still potentially this years scariest gaming experience? Where did the scary go in scary games?
It’s interesting to me that 2012 sees the resurgence of the horror movie.
Usually you don’t see many movies with horror aspects until the Halloween period; indeed, year on year the month of October is generally the most crowded time for horror movies. And yet in 2012, we’re seeing the horror genre slowly branch out and release over a much longer stretch. Whether it is Noel Clarke’s interesting Brit-Flick horror Storage 24, or the much hyped Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or even the two gaming transitions – Resident Evil: Retribution or Silent Hill: Revelation, this year has seen a real concerted effort to spread horror over a much larger area, so we’re not drowned in them come October.
The problem is, the gaming world is starting to suffer.
There was a time in the last decade when horror games were far superior – and more terrifying – than movies. Discounting the shock factors of Hostel and Saw, games were delivering narrative and scares in a much more direct way, a way that movies had begun to lose sight of in their quest for more blood, more special effects and more detail in the monsters. Whether you went for the near-parody stylings of the Resident Evil series, the psychological mind-buggery of Silent Hill, the pure distilled atmosphere of Project Zero, there was a choice. And then you come in with lesser known, but for me some arguably much better, titles. The utterly insane but brilliant Haunting Ground for me is still an amazing, must-play survival horror game, minimalist but utterly enthralling. You had the Teen Slasher genre poking in with the criminally overlooked and undersold ObsCure, the sci-fi Echo Night: Beyond, still a cult favourite. Then there was Nintendo and their unusual foray into the horror genre, Eternal Darkness, still widely regarded as having the best story of any horror game in the past twenty years, and arguably the best movie-to-game translation horror ever devised, The Thing, a game that I am appalled no-one went out and bought. Shame on you. Shame! SHAME! SHAAAAAAAAAME!
Movies could barely hold a candle to what games were doing – or the breadth they were covering, and this meant that the movie side of things arguably went to hell in a handcart. Hostel, Saw and their ilk traded on notoriety and controversy to put bums on seats, but truthfully they were never really horror movies – they were grotesques, side-show freak attractions. The video game industry seemed to have found a near perfect balance, whereas movies struggled in their limited confines to do the same things.
What a difference now though. Resident Evil 6 doesn’t look like a horror game (although jury remains out on this), Silent Hill: Downpour was a decent game but about as scary as an episode of Futurama and Dead Space 3, coming up, has drifted so far from its horror roots that it looks like a different game entirely. The problem is this; horror games are, arguably, just getting less scary.
Take the better ‘horror’ release so far this year – Resident Evil: Revelations. It’s a fantastic game, truly is. Something the 3DS can be proud of, hold high. But is it scary? Not really. It’s become something of an action game, rather than grounding in the horror, and it is a distinction that needs to be made – a horror game must be, in some capacity, scary at points. Take the cutesy Gregory Horror Show, itself considered a horror game. Why would you surmise a game with a distinctly cartoon bent is defined as a horror? Not because of the title, but because there are genuine points where you really see some utterly terrifying stuff – the people who visit are sometimes weird, sometimes kooky but then you have Catherine – a gigantic pink lizard in a nurses uniform, who carries around a comically large syringe with a stonking great needle on it. And the moments she chases you with it, you know EXACTLY what she’s thinking of doing to you – and ergo, the heart races, and you run, and hide, and try and shake her off. It’s thrilling, exciting and scary – regardless of the fact you’re being chased by a big pink cartoon lizard in a nurses uniform.
Horror is the art of scaring, thrilling and challenging people.
So when Dead Space 2 felt more like a guided tour than a horror game, when Resident Evil: Revelations feels like its more interested in the guns than any real intent to engineer a scare or two, and when Silent Hill: Downpour was so not scary, is there any real horror game this year? Anything notably scary?
Why yes. But it’s a re-release on the Wii of Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly.
Now, don’t misunderstand that because if you like horror and have a Wii, and haven’t tried it, you owe it to yourself to play it. Project Zero 2 ranks for me as the finest horror game ever made so far, a game of astounding beauty and complexity of story. Every part of the game has been thought through, agonised over. Having to exorcise ghosts with the Camera Obscura, and being relatively defenseless otherwise, makes it taut. Bonus photos of brief glimpses of ghosts add challenge, the narrative adds a human and emotional element. The game itself is designed to be scary, a dark and twisted place, cut off from the world for years. It’s run down, falling apart and the ethereal darkness and well-placed fog and lighting effects makes it visually a treat, even now. This is the pinnacle of horror gaming in the Noughties. It’s actually scary, and lovely at the same time.
But with the Silent Hill HD Collection as well, it appears this years horror treats are… well… re-released games of yesteryear. And it’s a problem because whilst horror can and should diversify, it’s also careering recklessly into the action genre for it would seem no other reason than to capture markets that have opened up – Gears of War, Call of Duty and others.
The reasons for this?
For all the diversity and range we enjoyed in the PS2/X-Box/Gamecube/Dreamcast era, there is an underlying tune to these games that is for the industry incredibly hard to ignore – they just couldn’t sell enough of them to justify their continued existence in some cases, and where they did, the longer things went on without change, the more they were criticised. And when they did change, people didn’t like the changes. Whilst we had years of amazing and fantastic horror games, the reality for those making them and trying to sell them to us was that we were never happy. Silent Hill: The Room was a perfectly serviceable horror game – it wasn’t meant originally to be a Silent Hill game, and that is where it was criticised. Those of us who took the time to play the game without that attitude were happy to find a profoundly interesting ghost story on offer – not perfect, but certainly nothing requiring derision. All people did was complain it wasn’t Silent Hill enough. Arguably, I’d say that what Silent Hill is is still yet to be decided upon – even the people making the recent games can’t come to any real consensus, so any criticism of The Room to me is soundly met with a sarcastic round of applause.
And what of those others? Haunting Ground was barely marketed – despite the fact I still have my original copy (and love it deeply still), most people were surprised when it came out. No-one knew much about it. The Thing, despite its brilliance, seemed to get lost in an avalanche (no pun intended!) of people deriding it solely on the face it was a game of a movie – a licensed game – rather than playing it, and seeing that it really was a hell of a lot more than that (It was, ostensibly, The Thing 2 – but rumour was they really didn’t want to put the 2 on there in case they could make a movie, so as not to confuse people by having to call it “The Thing 3”. Not like the recent movie had that problem, eh?). Eternal Darkness, a Nintendo IP and exclusive to the Gamecube, was always doomed to a smaller audience than it deserved. Echo Night: Beyond – truthfully, I never got it. But it has a charm. And Gregory Horror Show, with its cartoon set-up and sense of humour, was dismissed by most without a second thought. And some others I haven’t – Alone in the Dark: the New Nightmare was criticised quite profoundly on release, seeing as it was a crossover between PS1 and PS2, but personally I find it was ahead of its time in many ways and is a good history lesson. It’s also remarkably decent as well. And Cold Fear, a game criticised for being like Resident Evil 4 and yet, was nothing like it – and it was a great horror game set on a ship. A setting Capcom have been running into the ground for a while now.
The problem we have right now in horror gaming is that we’re in a position where horror gaming is in a bit of a rut – gaming is in a bit of a rut, getting better with some real corkers due out in the next year, but a rut nonetheless – and it is in this moment, this position we can look back on the wealth of horror games (and believe me, I’ve barely scratched the surface) and there is this odd realisation – that, for all the criticism, we had a bloody good run of bloody good horror games. And was the market thankful, or happy? Clearly not. And you can’t survive based on a small fanbase, and many horror games have been swallowed up or, sadly, consigned to the great big gaming graveyard in the sky.
Is it any wonder then that horror games have changed so much? The PS2 era was cheaper and more sustainable than it has been this generation, and allowed for more creative freedom and expression. And most of it was great, some of it was amazing and some of it was okay. But most of all, it happened, and for people who ask, “Where is the scare?”, my response is usually “We lost it about eight years ago, when people realised that making really amazing horror games wasn’t worth the expense for people who didn’t seem that interested.”
And it is something I mourn, but with people looking back – there is hope. HD Remakes are very popular, some old games may only need a touching up and a digital release and boom, they’re back. Others would require legal issues resolving (The Thing), but the thing is – these games exist, and should continue to exist. At a time when horror gamers are a little starved from the current crop, we have reserves that most genres would kill for – equally as nutritious, delicious and perhaps the aging may have even worked in their favour. Who knows? We have the capacity to get a dirt-cheap last-gen machine, and a few of these horror games, and enjoy hours and hours of quality gaming. And if we start doing this, if it happens that people are turning to older games for their horror kicks, perhaps that will excite the horror gaming market again – bring it back up to speed on what we used to do, the width and breadth and range of things we had on offer, and inject some much needed inspiration back into it.
Horror gaming isn’t dead – it’s just if you want a scary story, you’ll need to ask the older generations for them, rather than pinning your hopes on the new blood.
And these games deserve to be enjoyed still. They are still quality games. All we need to do is find them and, arguably, buy them – and hope that in the process of doing so, that the industry notices and makes a decision to change again. Not back to the old ways of doing it – let’s not go backwards, looking back is fine and playing old games is fine but we have moved on as well. But rather, to change and diversify again, and encourage some of that magic and imagination that years ago dripped from so many horror games.
Horror movies are and have been looking back to the “classics” in many regards to find their future. Horror gaming could definitely learn that lesson, and the sooner – the better.
- This is a re-publishing of an article I wrote back in June. I’m off out today so I thought I’d bump this up from my quieter days than do nothing at all. Hope you all have an awesome Hallows Eve and I will resume my lengthy ramblings tomorrow. – Kami.